Liberalism (from Latin liberalis – free) is the name of a “family” of ideological and political trends historically developed from rationalistic and enlightening criticism, which in the 17th and 18th centuries were subjected to the Western European society, political absolutism and the dictatorship of the church in secular life.

The philosophical foundations of “members of the liberal family” have always been different to incompatibility. Historically, the most important among them:

  1. the doctrine of the “natural rights” of man and the “social contract” as the foundation of a legitimate political order (J. Locke, Public Contract);
  2. the “Kantian paradigm” of the moral autonomy of the noumenal “I” and the concepts of the “rule of law” ensuing from it;
  3. the ideas of “Scottish enlightenment” (D.Yum, A.Smith, A.Ferguson and others) about the spontaneous evolution of social institutions, driven by the unavoidable scarcity of resources combined with the egoism and ingenuity of people, connected, however, with “moral feelings”;
  4. utilitarianism (I. Bentham, D. Ricardo, J. S. Mill, etc.) with his program of “greatest happiness for the greatest number of people”, considered as calculating maximizers of self-interest;
  5. somehow connected with Hegel’s philosophy “historical liberalism” that affirms the freedom of man, but not as something inherent in him “from birth,” but as, according to R. Collingwood, “acquired gradually insofar as a person enters in the self-conscious possession of one’s personality through…moral progress. “

In modified and often eclectic variants, these various philosophical grounds are reproduced in contemporary discussions within the “liberal family.” The main axes of such discussions, around which new groups of liberal theories are formed, pushing to the fore the significance of differences in philosophical grounds, are the following. First, should liberalism, as its main goal, seek to “limit the coercive power of any government” (F.Hayek), or is it a secondary issue, to be solved depending on how liberalism is coping with its most important task of “maintaining conditions without which is impossible for a person to realize his or her abilities freely “(T.X. Green). The essence of these discussions is the attitude of the state and society, the role, functions and permissible scales of activity of the first for ensuring the freedom of development of the individual and the free community of people. Secondly, should liberalism be “value-neutral”, a kind of “clean” technique for protecting individual freedom, regardless of the values ​​in which it is expressed (J.Rowles, B.Akkerman), or he embodies certain values ​​(humanity, tolerance and solidarity, justice, etc.), the departure from which and boundless moral relativism are fraught with the most pernicious, including directly political consequences (W. Galston, M. Walzer). The essence of this type is the normative content of liberalism and the dependence on it of the practical functioning of liberal institutions. Thirdly, the dispute is “economic” and “ethical” (or political) liberalism. The first is characterized by the formula of L. von Mises: “If you condense the whole program of liberalism into one word, then it will be [private] property .. All other requirements of liberalism stem from this fundamental requirement.” “Ethical” liberalism asserts that the connection between freedom and private property is ambiguous and not immutable in different historical contexts. According to B. Croce, freedom “must have the courage to accept the means of social progress, which … are diverse and contradictory”, considering laissez-faire principle only as “one of the possible types of economic order”.

If different types of liberalism, classical and modern, cannot find a common philosophical denominator and their approaches to key practical problems vary so significantly, what then allows us to speak of their belonging to one “family”? Prominent Western researchers reject the very possibility of giving liberalism a single definition: its history reveals only the picture of “ruptures, accidents, diversity … of thinkers, indifferently mixed in a bunch under the guise of” liberalism “(D. Gray). The commonality of the different types of liberalism in all other relations is revealed if they are not viewed from the side of their philosophical or politico-programmatic content but as an ideology, the defining function of which is not to describe reality, but to act in reality, mobilizing and directing people’s energy for certain purposes. In various historical situations, the successful implementation of this function requires resorting to different philosophical ideas and proposing different program guidelines for the same market, “minimization” or expansion of the state, etc. In other words, the only general definition of liberalism can only consist in the fact that it is a function of the realization of certain values-goals, which are specifically manifested in each specific situation. The dignity and measure of the “perfection” of liberalism is determined not by the philosophical depth of its doctrines or by its fidelity to certain “sacred” formulations about the “naturalness” of human rights or the “inviolability” of private property, but by its practical (ideological) ability to bring society closer to its goals and not give to “break” into a state that is radically alien to them. History has repeatedly demonstrated that the philosophically poor liberal doctrines turned out to be much more effective from this point of view than their philosophically refined and refined “fellows” (let us compare the political “fates” of the views of the “founding fathers” of the United States, as they are set forth in the “Federalist” and others documents, on the one hand, and German Kantianism on the other). What are the stable goals-values ​​of liberalism, which received in its history various philosophical substantiations and embodied in different practical programs of action?

  1. Individualism is in the sense of a “primacy” of the moral dignity of a person before any encroachments on him from any collective, whatever considerations of expediency such attacks are supported. Understanding individualism does not exclude the a priori self-sacrifice of a man if he recognizes the requirements of the collective “fair.” Individualism is not connected in a logically necessary way with those ideas about the “atomized” society, within the framework of which and by which it was originally asserted in the history of liberalism.
  2. Egalitarianism – in the sense of recognizing the same moral value for all people and denying any “empirical” differences between them (regarding origin, property, profession, sex, etc.) for organizing the most important legal and political institutions of the society. Such egalitarianism is not necessarily justified according to the formula “everyone is born equal”. For liberalism, it is important to introduce the problem of equality into the logic of the obligation – “everyone should be recognized morally and politically equal”, regardless of whether such an introduction implies the doctrine of “natural rights”, the Hegelian dialectic of “slave and master” or the utilitarian calculation of its strategic benefits.
  3. Universalism – in the sense of recognizing that the demands of individual dignity and equality (in this sense) cannot be rejected by referring to the “immanent” features of certain cultural and historical collectives of people. Universalism should not necessarily be tied to the notions of the extra-historical “human nature” and the similarity in understanding by all of “dignity” and “equality.” It can be interpreted in such a way that in every culture – following the inherent character of human development – there must be the right to demand respect for dignity and equality, as they are understood in their historical certainty. The universal is not what people demand in different contexts, but how they demand what they demand, namely, not as slaves seeking for mercy, in which the masters can rightfully refuse them, but as worthy people who have the right on what they require.
  4. Meliorism as an affirmation of the possibility of correcting and improving any social institutions. Meliorism does not necessarily coincide with the idea of ​​progress as a directed and deterministic process, with which it has been historically linked for a long time. Meliorism also accepts different ideas about the relationship between the conscious and spontaneous principles in the change of society – in the range from the spontaneous evolution of Hayek to the rationalistic constructivism of Bentham.

By this constellation of values-goals, liberalism claims to be a modern ideology, different from earlier political doctrines. The boundary here can be denoted by the transformation of the central problem. All the pre-modern political thought was somehow focused on the question: “what is the best state and what should its citizens be?” In the center of liberalism, another question: “how is the state possible if the freedom of people, capable of pouring out and destructive self-will, is unrecoverable?” All liberalism , figuratively speaking, follows from two formulas of T. Hobbes: “There is no absolute good, devoid of any relation to anything or to anyone” (that is, the question of “the best state in general” is meaningless) and “the nature of good and evil depends on vokupnosti conditions available at the time “(ie,” right “and” good “policies can only be determined as a function of a given situation). The change of these central questions determined the general outline of liberal political thinking, outlined by the following lines-positions:

  • that a state can take place, it should include all those involved in this matter, and not only virtuous or possessing some special features that make them suitable for political participation (as, for example, Aristotle ). This is the liberal principle of equality, which was filled with content during the history of liberalism, progressively extending to all new groups of people excluded from politics in the previous stages. It is clear that such dissemination occurred through a democratic struggle against the previously established institutional forms of liberalism with their inherent mechanisms of discrimination, rather than through the self-unfolding of the “immanent principles” of liberalism. But another thing is important: a liberal state and ideology were capable of such development, whereas earlier political forms (the same ancient policy) were broken when they tried to expand their original principles and extend them to groups of oppressed
  • if no absolute good is self-evident to all participants in politics, then the achievement of peace presupposes the freedom of all to follow one’s ideas about the good. This assumption is “technically” realized through the establishment of channels (procedural and institutional), through which people satisfy their aspirations. Initially, freedom comes to the modern world not in the form of a “good gift”, but in the form of a terrible challenge to the very foundations of the community of people from their violent selfishness. Liberalism had to recognize this brutal and dangerous freedom and to socialize it according to that primitive formula of “freedom from”, which is so expressively conveyed by early liberalism. Such recognition and what followed from it for political theory and practice is necessary for realizing the very possibility of living together in modern conditions. (In the sense of the Hegelian formula, “freedom is necessary”, that is, freedom became a necessity for the present, which, of course, has little in common with the “dialectical-materialistic” interpretation of this formula by F. Engels – freedom as a perceived necessity). But the need to recognize freedom in its rude form does not mean that liberalism does not go further in the comprehension and practice of freedom. If ethical liberalism strived for something, then it is precisely to make freedom itself an end in itself for people. The formula for this new understanding of freedom as “freedom for” can be considered the words of A. de Tocqueville: “He who seeks in freedom is something other than herself, created for slavery”;
  • if freedom is recognized (both in the first and in the second sense), the only way to arrange the state is the consent of its organizers and participants. The meaning and strategic goal of the liberal policy is to achieve consensus as the only real foundation of the modern state. The movement in this direction – with all its failures, contradictions, the use of manipulation and suppression tools, as well as with the moments of historical creativity and the realization of new opportunities for the emancipation of people – this is the real history of liberalism, its only meaningfully rich definition.
Rate your experience with this philosophy study!

Discuss this Study